Is it in bad taste even to talk about having good taste?

In an age of democratised opinion, is talk of taste now merely the province of shameless snobs, or are we secretly all still at it?

The interior designer Nicky Haslam has produced a new tea towel listing “Things Nicky Haslam Finds Common”, which include, but are not limited to: scented candles, celebrity chefs, Ibiza, not eating carbs, confidence, personal trainers, pronouncing the “e” in furore, expensive bikes, Halloween, jazz and saying “bye bye”. I sat with this for a while, as I encourage you to do too (further down the tea towel is “jet lag” and “loving your parents”) and considered the trouble with taste.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since we decided to paint our kitchen cupboards. I mean, it didn’t feel like a decision that should cripple me, leave me wondering quite who I was, simply looking at colour charts and wondering what a person like me should like, but there I was, wobbling. I got over it of course – I took a photo of the horizon when I came out of the tube station after work and matched the top cupboards to the sky and the bottom cupboards to the silhouettes of the trees, bish bash bosh, lovely – but it was shaky for a moment there. I’ve felt it before, this instability, this awareness of the flimsiness of my identity, especially when faced with the purchase of something that faces outwards, or something so expensive I knew I would be stuck with it as a crucial component of my domestic personality for years to come. A sofa. A child.

Haslam used to write a newspaper column called How Common, discussing the problem with, say, “Complaining about being ill” or “Specifying red wine” – “You should say: ‘Will you have some wine, or would you prefer white?’” – which he reprised for the Daily Mail in 2014, updating it with things like, “Going somewhere hot for Christmas”. One of the reasons his commentary on commonness continues to run is not just because class, bound so stickily to taste, is ingrained in our culture yet taboo to discuss, but because taste itself is almost impossible to navigate.

In theory, good taste no longer exists. The idea of good taste today has a bitter tang, associated as it is with a historically skewed imposition from those that shouted loudest – usually rich white men with their own unwritten tea towels of things they believed to be common. No one opinion today is worth more than another. Pop music is given as much weight and attention as classical; artists have found huge diverse audiences on Instagram. In fact in art right now, it’s not just that the vast reach of social media means good taste is no longer dictated by the few, but in galleries we can see a conscious veering towards the naive, towards wonky figurative painting of the sort that 20 years ago would be dismissed as something a child could do. It’s “bad taste” art, in that it’s too easy to look at, and can hang on a wall, and requires no formal education.

And yet taste matters. We feel safe hiding within it. It’s one of the few visible signs of class, of our standing in the world. The only issue I have with the wonderful Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, with its commentary on communication and the limits of modern masculinity, is the team’s imposition of their own understated middle class “good taste” on these men. It feels corporate and a bit grim. Every home they enter they leave with grey walls and a cluster of framed photographs, every wardrobe with a slim trouser, every kitchen with an avocado. Taste is used here like a plug-in air freshener, to neutralise these hapless straight guys, if not quite neuter them.

How have I become a person that cares about a kitchen enough to publish the colour of my cupboards? I disgust myself, honestly, and often. Because I know I’m overthinking it. I yearn to be a person who knows exactly what they think about carpets, or designer logos, or the size of TVs. But I’m doing it in part, maybe, because the kitchen has become such a pivot of taste anxiety.

Once, everybody would leave home at the end of their teens and go and find their own kitchens, their own cabinet of mistakes. But increasingly people are finding themselves unable to leave their parents’ sides, which adds a whole other dimension to the state of taste, where people have no room to rebel, no space to change and discover what they really like. And in this growing crack of tension a whole industry of Queer Eye-style corporate taste is growing. Until recently, only clothes were allowed to be fashionable, in and out across a season. Now those boundaries of taste have spread to interiors too, including the correct pot plants, colours and nostalgic inspirations.

It’s easy to laugh at Haslam’s shameless snobbery, but we all have our own secret lists of taste. To unpick them would involve more than just dismantling the sponsored ads that follow us home. It would require a tearful exploration of our families, our ambitions and our anxiety about who we are. It’s easier then, to sit gently stewing in kitchens vibrating with messages of identity, and mop up spillages with whatever tea towel we have to hand. Good taste – this is not au revoir, this is bye bye.

One more thing…

This week the Ritz Hotel Paris auctions off 10,000 objects including brass
toilet paper holders and plates for salad, bread, main course, cheese, dessert
and asparagus. My new life awaits.

The latest scandal to get the glossy nostalgia treatment is the story of Lorena Bobbitt. And, instead of focusing on the penis punchline, it will be a serious investigation of domestic abuse. Produced by the brilliant Jordan Peele, no less.

Someone at US Marie Claire zoomed in on a photo of Meghan Markle’s head and spotted a story: headline, “Meghan Markle Has a Single Gray Hair.” But because it’s 2018, when glossy mags can no longer get away with shaming women for failing the Barbie test, it seems they quickly tried to spin it into a story of feminist victory. So, after they’d written “Meghan Markle Has a Single Gray Hair,” they followed it with, “And It’s Magnificent.” These are odd times to be female.

Email Eva at follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman


Eva Wiseman

The GuardianTramp

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